When clients call for a consultation or come in for a first appointment, an underlying question, often unstated, always shapes what happens: is there a good fit between what I’m looking for—relief from anxiety and depression, for example—and what you have to offer? But that same question, albeit expressed in different ways, is by no means restricted to what happens between therapists and clients. However we may resist the idea, we’re in the therapy business, and the reality is that our initial contact with clients represents the same challenge faced by salespeople seeking to turn shoppers into satisfied customers. What good, responsible salespeople know is that their job isn’t to make people buy things they don’t need, but to assess people’s needs and show them the match with what they have to offer.
Think about the experience of buying a car—as soon as you step onto a dealership lot, you’re ready for the sales pitch, the question-and-answer dance of customer and seller. Like it or not, you’re doing this same dance when you first talk to potential clients. You’re not trying to peddle some product people don’t really need: they’ve called you up, or stepped onto the lot, as it were. They want to know what you can offer them. Your goal is to use your skills to help them feel safe and well served. When that happens, you can close the deal. But how do you do it? Here are eight steps to help you make a good sales pitch.
1. Understand their vision. One of the first questions the car salesperson is likely to ask you is whether you’re looking for a vehicle that’s new or used, or big or small, so he knows where to start the conversation. Typically, car buyers have a vision of what they’re looking for. Similarly, clients have in mind a vision, however vague, of how they want to be different. They may say, “I need help managing my anxiety,” “I want to feel less depressed,” or “I want my husband and me to stop arguing so much.” Your job, then, is to ask questions to help them clarify that vision: for example, “What do you mean when you say managing your anxiety or feeling less depressed?” Understanding their vision is the most important part of helping clients make a decision to take the next step forward, as the rest of your conversation with them will revolve around what you find out.
2. Find out what they expect. For the car salesperson, drilling down into specific expectations involves asking about price range, color, gas mileage, sports packages, and so forth. For therapists, it means asking prospective clients if they’ve been in therapy before and what exactly they liked or disliked about it. Are they looking for a particular therapeutic approach or simply a safe place to talk things out? Do they want to walk away with specific tools and coping skills, or are they interested in simply gleaning insights into the past? In essence, this step involves fine-tuning the vision, clarifying expectations, finding out what to do and not do.
If a potential client says he’s already talked a lot in therapy about how his anxiety is tied to growing up in an alcoholic family and now wants help figuring out how he can avoid turning into a turtle at social events, you know to skip the history and give the man what he wants: anxiety-coping skills.
3. Reflect back what you heard. Many therapists rush past these first two steps and move right into gathering background information about family history, symptoms, and medications. Don’t make this mistake! Slow down and take the time to make sure potential clients know that you understand what they’re looking for. This step builds trust and safety, and it can be as simple as saying, “So it sounds like you want to learn tools that you can use to calm yourself down when you feel anxious,” or “It seems like you want to get a grasp on the way your childhood makes you sensitive to other’s opinions of you. Is this right?” Similarly, the car salesperson might assure a buyer that he’s paying attention to what she wants, and not simply pushing his own agenda, by saying, “So you’re looking most of all for good gas mileage, under $25,000, and color doesn’t really matter. Is that right?”
4. Attend to nonverbal cues and verbal subtleties. An effective salesperson will create a rapport with a new family looking for a sedan differently from how he would with a middle-aged CEO looking for a convertible. He might invite a young family to have a seat and make sure to talk knowledgably and seriously about a car’s safety features. With the CEO, he might make a few jokes, lean against a wall, and focus the conversation more on the technical aspects of the car’s engine. In the same way, if your first consultation is with a teenager, you might slouch a little so you’re not seen as another adult hovering over her. With an academic, you might mention the latest neuroscience research. With the client who uses cuss words, you might use a few yourself. Also, you can mirror a client’s cues in your dress: there’s no need to wear construction boots when talking to a carpenter, but dressing down a bit if most of your clients come from the local homeless shelter or teen group home, for example, is a good idea.
If your initial meeting with a potential client is over the phone, be extra mindful of the kind of language he likes to use: notice his visual, auditory, or kinesthetic imagery. And match his energy level: more animated or more calm, depending on what the client presents. The car salesperson wants to come across as friendly and interested. Generally, you want to sound gentle and clear.
5. Make your pitch. Keeping in mind what you’ve learned from the other steps, at this point, you want to present what you have to offer. Here, the car salesperson says, “I think this car has all the things you’re looking for. It’s in your price range, and has good gas mileage and comfortable seating for six.” You, for your part, can present your experience and summarize your approach and style. If the potential client’s vision is to gain life skills, talk about the skills you can teach her. You can say, “Actually, I agree with you that having tools to use in stressful moments, such as breathing and stop techniques, can provide immediate relief from anxiety.” Or you can say, “Yes, I believe that it’s important to understand how the past shapes our behavior so you can better decide how you want to respond in the present. What I imagine us doing in sessions is ________.”
What you’re doing is aligning someone’s vision with yours, which is the heart of the sale. If the visions aren’t quite a match, you can still link your approach in some way to the client’s primary concern. The car salesperson might acknowledge that a particular car is just a bit outside the customer’s price range, but that’s because it has the upgraded tires, which will last longer and get her better gas mileage, saving her money in the long run. As a therapist, you might say that while learning skills is important in relieving the symptoms of anxiety, you’ve found in your experience that understanding and reshaping certain underlying personality dynamics is most helpful in reducing anxiety overall. In this way, you’re educating the client about your approach.
6. Get yeses down the line. A good car salesperson is looking for agreement to each element of his pitch and is alert to any negative responses. If a customer says he thinks the expensive tires are an unnecessary extra expense, the salesperson needs to highlight the advantages, perhaps showing in dollars and cents exactly how much can be saved over three years. Or he may need to offer to swap out the tires for less expensive ones. If the client shakes her head while you’re talking about understanding personality dynamics, or says she’s gone through all that stuff before in therapy, you need to stop and address her concerns.
If you don’t address the shaking head or the flat, tentative “that sounds okay” response from clients early on—if you don’t clarify and address any sign of ambivalence or concern—when you ask at the end whether they want to set up another appointment, they’ll tell you they need to think about it, or check their work schedule and get back to you. If you get this response at the end, you’ll have little or no time to mop up. Catching the negatives as they come up allows you to close with all yeses.
7. Summarize and close the deal. You can start this step by saying, “I feel like we’re on the same page. Do you?” If you don’t get a solid “yes”—or if you hear a hesitant “yeah, I think so”—then back up. On the other hand, if you do get a firm, positive response, you can lay out the next step. Here, the car salesperson would talk about financing or delivery times. But you can talk about a six-session commitment, copays, homework assignments, or what you’d like to focus on in the next session.
8. Follow up. Some clients are shopping around and actually do need time to think before they commit to anything. Don’t pressure them in session by saying something like “Just to let you know, I have openings now, but probably won’t by next week.” Most clients will hear that as manipulation, which it is. Instead, give them your business card and tell them to call if they have any other questions. Then, be sure to follow up. Just as the car salesman will undoubtedly leave you a voicemail within a day or two, thanking you for coming in and seeing if you have any questions, you can do the same.
Ultimately, if you suspect that potential clients are left with any reservations and you didn’t have a chance to mop up, you can say something like “I realize that I was giving you a lot of information that may have been a bit overwhelming. I’d be happy to talk to you further about this.” Or you could say, “It sounded like you had reservations about having your husband come in. Maybe it would be helpful if we could briefly discuss ways you could present the idea to him.” What you’re doing here is avoiding cutoffs by making it easy for clients to circle back. The message here is that your door is open.
Like other aspects of therapy, success at closing the deal with new clients is a matter of both practice and finding ways to get comfortable with integrating the steps I’ve outlined into your own personal style. If you’ve been sold by this brief guided tour of the art of salesmanship, you’re ready to see how it’ll impact your practice. If not—perhaps because you still find the idea of therapists learning from salespeople a bit discordant—my hunch is that I lost you somewhere along the journey through these eight steps. I’ll be sure to give you a call to follow up.
Illustration © Image Zoo / Illustration Source
Robert Taibbi, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 40 years of experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery and Clinical Social Work Supervision; Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners; Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice; Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Treatment of Anxiety, Anger & Depression; and The Art of the First Session.